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Recently, Kirsten and I caught the new Netflix documentary Devil at the Crossroads about the life of Blues legend Robert Johnson.

In June of 2004 I had to attend a class at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi for four weeks.  Keesler is located on the Gulf Coast in Biloxi, Mississippi right down the road from Gulfport – a very popular vacation spot.

My weekends were free and I spent my time going for runs on the boardwalk, swimming in the ocean, playing some classical pieces on my guitar, catching up on reading, and writing a story churning around in my head. But one particular weekend a series of strange occurrences beset me and left me with a rather bizarre story to tell.

Friday after class I returned to my hotel room a little tired and decided to take a nap before dinner.  During this nap I had the strangest dream.  I was driving in a big convertible Cadillac down a country road when I came upon a black man running down the side of the road.  As I approached he turned and I could see terror sprawled on his face.  His wide eyes saw me and he thrust his thumb in the air indicating he needed a ride. I slowed down and noticed in his other hand he was carrying a worn guitar case.  I stopped to pick up the man and he removed his hat to wipe the sweat from his brow as he hurriedly climbed in.  He thanked me and introduced himself as Robert.  I started driving again and I noticed he kept turning to look nervously behind us as we drove and made small talk.  Obviously something was after him and he kept searching to see if it was behind us.  Finally, as we passed a sign which said Union Church, the dream ended with a large dog racing into the road ahead of us.  As I slammed on the brakes to avoid hitting the animal he screamed something about the hellhound.

I awoke from this dream with a start and was momentarily confused as to where I was.  As I regained my bearings I thought about the dream.  The dream was easily interpreted as a meeting with Robert Johnson, the infamous blues guitarist and native of Mississippi.  It struck me as a strangely vivid dream and my thoughts kept returning to the story of how Robert Johnson had supposedly met the Devil at a crossroads near Clarksdale or Rosedale in order to make a deal with Satan. Supposedly he had traded his soul for fame – it was an old myth which had been retold many times, in many different forms.  The story of Faust and Paganini were probably the most famous versions; but the Robert Johnson story had spawned similar stories about the members of Led Zeppelin and was recounted by other artists including Charlie Daniels.  There was even a movie made in the eighties called “Crossroads” about the legend in which the protagonist avoids losing his soul by playing an arrangement of a Paganini violin caprice on the guitar.

I went to get some dinner and thought more and more about the story of Robert Johnson.  The details were sketchy but the legend had prevailed.  Johnson had been an untalented blues guitarist who hung out with notable bluesmen Willie Brown, Charlie Patton, and Son House.  He left Robinsonville and returned home to Hazlehurst where he met Ike Zinnerman.  Zinnerman, an Alabama native like me, used to proclaim he had learned to play guitar by sitting on a tombstone in an old graveyard late at night.  Most people believe it was under Zinnerman’s tutelage Johnson became such a good guitarist.

But rumors began to spring up it wasn’t Zinnerman at all which caused Johnson to become so suddenly good.  When Johnson returned to Robinsonville his old idols took notice of his marked improvement and Son House began to tell of how Robert had met Satan down at an old crossroads in order to sell his soul in exchange for his blues playing abilities.

Robert himself never denied this rumor and, in fact, wrote several songs such as “Me and the Devil Blues”, “Hellhound on My Trail”, and “Cross Road Blues” that seemed to confirm the story.

Supposedly, according to another blues guitarist named Tommy Johnson, a person wishing to make such a deal with the Devil would sit at the crossroads about midnight and play their guitar until a strange black figure would arrive.  This black figure would, of course, be Satan himself.  Satan would take the person’s guitar, tune it, and give it back.  This would be the end of the deal and the person would suddenly possess supernatural skill and whatever fame and fortune they so desired.  But in all such tales there is never a satisfactory end and the poor individual who pays their soul usually is haunted by tragedy and pain.  In the case of Robert Johnson, he died of poisoning from one of two possible people in a jealous love triangle only a few years after tasting a little of the enormous fame he now possesses.

Just where this notorious and mystical crossroads is, is also a matter of some speculation.  Most accounts place it somewhere around Clarksdale and Rosedale in the northwestern corner of Mississippi.  But this doesn’t really seem to fit with Johnson’s sojourn back to his hometown of Hazlehurst.  Something in my dream kept gnawing at me.  It was the place name of Union Church – I had never heard of this place before in my life.

After eating I returned to my room and proceeded to peruse the road atlas of Mississippi.  I quickly found the cities of Clarksdale and Rosedale.  It took me a few more minutes to locate Hazlehurst off of I-55 and Highway 28.  And then I saw something which gave me a little bit of a shock – southwest of Hazlehurst was a town called Union Church!

Suddenly, the sign in my dream flashed back into my mind and I could see there was a number alongside the name of Union Church and the number was nine.  I looked at the map and calculated nine miles outside of Union Church coming from Hazlehurst would place the location of where the hellhound stopped the car in my dream inside of the Homochitto National Forest at the crossroads of Highway 28 and Highway 547.  For several moments I sat in bewilderment wondering what the dream could mean.  The similarity of the dream to the map was eerily accurate.

The dream and my following discovery on the map kept buzzing around in my head.  As I sat in my hotel room and strummed on my guitar I wondered how long it would take to get to the Homochitto National Forest.  I sat down with the map again and did a rough calculation of approximately 180 miles.  If I drove 60 miles per hour from Gulfport to Highway 28 and then 50 miles per hour on the smaller highway till I reached the forest, I concluded I should be able to make the trip in four hours pretty easily.  I looked at the clock and it was almost 6:30 p.m.  That would put me at the crossroads this very night at around 10:30 p.m.  Plenty of time to make it before midnight.

Before I had time to question the absurdity of my actions I had grabbed a few articles of clothing, some toiletries, the road atlas, and my guitar and was pulling out onto I-90 from Biloxi to Gulfport.

As I drove the two-door rental car along the coast I pondered just what it was I was hoping to achieve on this trip.  Would I really meet someone claiming to be Satan at the crossroads?  If I did have a chance to trade my soul for fame, fortune, and guitar virtuosity, would I do it?  I used to dream of being a well known guitarist but that had faded over the years. While I still enjoyed music and worked hard at improving my playing, I really had no desire to be known for my playing ability.  I still entertained dreams of being known for my compositional ability on the classical guitar but that too was secondary to my real passion – writing.  If I had to choose what posterity would remember me for it would be as an author of short horror and weird fiction.  Now, if I had the chance to trade my soul for fame, fortune, and writing virtuosity, I would definitely do it.  That’s how badly I wanted to be a well known author.

I recall the drive very well.  I grappled with the urge to smoke on the drive is why.  I used to be a very unusual smoker.  I never really was a true smoker by any stretch. I never smoked during the day for one. When I did smoke was when I had a few beers in the evening.  I would smoke when really bored or when stressed out about something, too.  I always exercised fairly regular to ward off the bad effects of smoking so I didn’t really over worry about my habit. I did want to quit completely because I knew it was unhealthy.  I had been doing pretty well on the trip so far at quitting but the drive was really boring.  Finally, I gave in to my desires and stopped to buy a pack of smokes.  After having the first wonderful cigarette I cursed my weakness and vowed to quit after I finished the pack.  I had done it many times before but this time it really stuck in my memory.  You’ll understand why in a moment; but first, let me tell the rest.

It was about 9:45 when I reached Hazlehurst.  I briefly entertained the idea of stopping and seeing one of the town’s Robert Johnson tourist attractions but decided it would take too long.  No, I was being driven by an inexplicable force and my only concern was my dream-revealed destination.

The rest of the drive was over quickly and I soon was entering the Homochitto National Forest.  The crossroads was immediately inside the forest and before I realized it I was upon the Highway 547 sign.  I stopped quickly and pulled over on the shoulder of the road staring at the sign which said Union Church was nine miles down the road.  I looked at my watch and it read 10:27 p.m.  I sat for a few minutes and smoked another cigarette. The traffic on Highway 28 was light – only an occasional car passed by.

I waited until there was no traffic coming in any direction and then I retrieved my guitar from the back seat and found a spot to sit. It was a nice night – hot but clear. A slight wind blew from the west which served to make the heat at least tolerable.  It was fairly dark but I could see well enough to find a dead log at the edge of the woods on which to sit.  I was close enough to the road to see it but hidden enough where passing cars wouldn’t notice me.

I opened my guitar case and pulled out my guitar.  I felt a little weird about the whole affair but I thought it would at least make for a good story to tell my friends.  At first I started playing some blues licks but I felt the need to play something a little more challenging.  So then I started playing Paganini’s Caprice No. 24 for the Guitar.  This was a rather difficult piece I had been working on recently and it somehow seemed appropriate at the time.

I played this piece and then played a few others then took a break to smoke another cigarette.  Then I got up and walked around for several minutes and returned to the log to sit and wait.

It was getting close to 11:30 and I was growing bored of this whole ordeal.  I decided to play the Paganini piece one more time before calling it a night.  My attention was completely focused on my guitar when a voice made me jump and scared me so bad I dropped my guitar as I rose and retreated from the voice.

“Whatchoo doin’ out here this late at night, boy?”  I recovered enough to regard an old black man standing at the edge of the road about 20 or 30 yards away.

I really didn’t know what to say in reply so I made up a lie. “I’m just passing through and was getting sleepy at the wheel so I stopped to get some fresh air and wake up a bit before continuing on.”  Was this really the Devil coming to make a deal with me?  The old man sure didn’t look like the Devil to me.

“What kinda music you playin’?” he asked walking a bit closer.

“Oh, it’s classical music,” I said by way of explanation.

“Uh huh,” he mumbled as if not really caring.

“What are you doing out here this late?” I asked.

“On my way home.  My name’s Esau,” he said.

I introduced myself as I walked over to meet him and shake his hand.  “Do you want to tune my guitar?”  I couldn’t believe the words came out of my mouth as I spoke them.  It sounded so ridiculous and I cursed myself before I had even finished the sentence.

“Tune your guitar?” he said in confusion.  “Tune your own damn guitar, boy.  I don’t know how to play no guitar.”

“I’m sorry,” I said uncomfortably.  I produced a cigarette and lit it.

“Mind if I get a smoke from ya?” he asked.

“Not at all,” I said offering the pack and my lighter to him. He took a cigarette and lit it, took a long drag, and made a face as if he were relishing the taste.

After a moment he looked at me and said, “Well, I guess I best me moseyin’ along.”

“Yeah, me too,” I said.  I remember thinking if he were the Devil then he sure didn’t make me feel scared; and he sure didn’t seem to care about making any kind of deal for my soul.

“Well, it was nice meetin’ ya,” he said as he headed back to the road.

“Nice meeting you too,” I returned.  I picked up my guitar and began putting it back in its case. He made one last comment before getting too far out of earshot which completely changed the harmless little encounter into something I swear made me think he was actually the Devil.

“Thanks for the smoke, boy.  I’ll settle up with you when I see you again.”  This last comment struck me as so strange I couldn’t formulate a response.  Before I realized it, he had disappeared into the darkness.

You might well think this chance encounter was just a coincidence and his comment at the end meant nothing at all.  I would’ve dismissed it too if the story had ended there.  But it didn’t.

I had planned on spending the night in my car and heading back to Biloxi the next morning but I was too rattled to sleep – especially at the crossroads.  So I drove back that night.  I had pretty much convinced myself my imagination was running wild trying to attach some weird meaning to an otherwise harmless encounter by the time I reached Hattiesburg.

I smoked as I drove and promised myself that after this pack was finished, I would quit again.  The pack was getting low and just after I went through Gulfport I pulled the last cigarette out of the pack and nearly had a wreck at what I beheld.  The cigarette was a solid black cigarette with one white marking on the side – a skull and crossbones.

I had to pull over to the side of the road to catch my breath.  My heart was thundering inside my chest.  My mind reeled at the meaning of the cigarette and just how it could’ve gotten in the pack.  Did the old black man use some slight of hands or was he really the Devil?

It took me several minutes to regain my composure. I drove back to my hotel room and sat on my bed looking at the cigarette wondering what to make of it.

Finally, I decided it was the Devil I had met and he knew it wasn’t virtuosity on the guitar I wanted.  No, he knew it was virtuosity in writing I desired.  That was my passion; my weakness.  I also knew the deal would be made if I smoked the black cigarette.

I can’t say how long I sat there struggling over whether or not to smoke the black cigarette.  I won’t tell you what I finally did but one day you’ll know…one day, you’ll know.

 

In 1991 I was a medic in the U.S. Air Force assigned to a refueling squadron in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.  Mostly, this entailed performing sick call a couple of times a day and issuing medicine to stop attacks of diarrhea rather than any real attacks by Iraqis.  The Saudi Arabian government had allowed us to inhabit a fairly nice community they had originally built for the Bedouin nomads who roamed the desert and periodically migrated into Riyadh.  But, the Bedouins, being fond of their nomadic lifestyle, had refused to occupy the permanent buildings.  This village was called Eskan Village and it lay on the eastern border of Riyadh.

I first met Michael Shaler at the clinic we had established at Eskan Village when we were scheduled to work “sick call” together. We immediately hit it off.  Shaler was a very outspoken guy and his looks were stereotypical of his California origins.  He was blond-haired, blue-eyed, and spoke with the slang of a surfer at times. He was constantly bubbling with energy and was always looking for some type of adventure; and when there was no adventure to be found, he would settle for mischief.  What was not to like about Shaler?  His cheerfulness and playfulness were infectious and no matter what you were doing with him, you would be guaranteed an entertaining time.

All of the medical personnel were billeted in the same area of Eskan Village and Shaler and I managed to be placed in the same villa.  We were, in turn, billeted adjacent to the troops who worked in Life Support.  This job refers to the men and women who maintain and equip the planes with life saving devices such as parachutes, oxygen masks, flares, life rafts, survival rations, and such equipment.  We had made friends with some of these enlisted men and would routinely hang out with them along with a couple of other medics from our unit.

The roofs of the villas were designed as a type of deck and had a four-foot high wall completely enclosing it.  We frequently would go over to the villa occupied by the Life Support guys and hang out on their rooftop while off duty. I remember one day when Shaler got the idea of talking the Life Support guys into bringing home a life raft from work and inflating it on the rooftop so we could fill it with water in order to have a small pool for cooling off in.

Another time Shaler talked us all into filling surgical gloves with water to make water balloons.  We then would throw them at people passing by the villa and duck behind the wall of the roof laughing and giggling while the unsuspecting victim would be left soaking wet wondering where the projectile had come from.

[A view of Eskan Village. Notice the walls around the roofs.]

[A different flag our neighbors flew. The view is from behind the roof wall.]

I mention these specific examples for two reasons.  The first is that they illustrate Shaler’s attempts to liven up our drab existence in the desert – his sense of adventure and mischief in an otherwise dull situation. The second, and in retrospect, more disturbing, is that they stick out in my mind as involving water.  This may sound rather trivial, but you must hear the entire story to see that maybe these ominous portents were signs of the horrible fate that eventually befell Shaler.  But signs like these are easily overlooked when they occur and only stand out in stark relief when viewed in retrospect.

I’m not really sure how Shaler heard about the cave, but he came to our group with the plan to visit it already formulated. The others in our group were Billy Jubinski, Jose Juarez, and Timothy Clay.  These last three were all Life Support guys.  We were all on our way to dinner at the compound’s chow tent when Shaler joined us smiling from ear to ear like the Cheshire Cat.

“I found out about a cave that isn’t more than 25 klicks from here.  This weekend we’re gonna check out a truck from the motor pool and go do a little exploring.”

“What the hell are you talking about, Shaler?” Jubinski asked.

“It’s supposed to be a really big cave with a pool in it,” Shaler said excitedly.  “The pool is huge and we can go swimming in it.”

“Who did you hear this from?” Clay said.

“I have my sources,” Shaler replied obtusely.

“Your sources, huh?” I said echoing Clay’s skepticism.

“Yeah, listen, the pool is deep in the cave so it’ll be pitch black in there.  We’ll need flashlights, but I was wondering if you guys have any really big light sources?”

Jubinski gave Shaler a reproving look for a moment, but Shaler just stared at him with that big, shit-eating grin locked on his face. Finally, Jubinski shook his head and said, “We have beacons for signaling which are pretty bright.”  With those words it was decided that we were going on Shaler’s little spelunking expedition.

It was later in the week that Juarez announced his idea for taking a handful of chemical glow-sticks that we could use to float in the pool of water in order to light the pool while we swam.  Our excitement grew as the weekend approached and Shaler was nearly beside himself with anticipation.  On Friday our excitement was interrupted by an event that drove the exhilaration of the weekend’s expedition from our thoughts.

[Bill, David, and Doc Mitchell.]

[An excursion to Diriyah. For some reason I thought a fanny pack was worth the loss of cool points.]

[The ruins were along the river where palm trees were a rare sight in the Arabian Desert.]

Shaler and I were on duty when a call came in from the guard on duty at the entry control gate of the compound.  He said there had been a bad wreck just outside of the compound on the freeway and he didn’t know if any American soldiers were involved or not.  Shaler, Dr. Fleming, who was the Flight Surgeon on duty, and I got in the ambulance and responded to the accident scene.

Apparently, a bus full of Arabic workers had driven off of the overpass and nose-dived onto the freeway below.  There was no Saudi Arabian transit system, or any real traffic laws for that matter, to speak of.  The workers pushed the carrying capacity of the busses to the limit and they rode the busses to and from work like sardines packed into a can.

The quickest way for us to get to the accident was to drive down the exit ramp on the wrong side of the road.  As we turned onto the exit ramp a truck stopped us and the Arab driver jumped out yelling in Arabic.  We got out and I immediately saw he and his passenger had thrown whatever survivors they could grab into the bed of the truck.  There were at least eight bloody and moaning people in the back. We couldn’t understand a word the driver was saying and Dr. Fleming finally convinced the man to take the poor, wounded passengers to the nearest hospital.  They were badly injured but alive.  Our services would be needed for all of the victims still entangled in the wreckage.

When we arrived at the wreckage it was a chaotic mess.  There were numerous injured and dead strewn across the freeway.  People who were driving but not involved in the accident were crowded around and trying to assist in whatever way they could.  We began to go through the task of triaging the patients and looking for the ones who needed the most immediate medical treatment.  Just after we arrived the Saudi Arabian emergency medical services arrived and began to take control of the scene.  It was a blur of activity, but eventually we were able to remove ourselves from the scene. Just before we left I caught Shaler staring at the dead bodies.  One particular body was lying with his head at an unnaturally sick angle and his eyes wide and glassy.  He appeared to be looking right at Shaler and Shaler just stood and stared back at the dead man.  I clapped Shaler on the back and caused him to stir from his dazed look.  “C’mon, Man,” I said.  “We can go now.”

[Islamic medical symbol.]

The rest of the day Shaler wasn’t his usual, jovial self.  The carnage of the accident really affected him and I too felt sobered by the event. That night, back at our villa, he awoke in the middle of the night with a yell.  I didn’t say anything to him, but I somehow knew he had had a nightmare about the wreck and the dead bodies.  The next morning, however, Shaler was back to normal and the excitement of the day’s trip had shoved the bus wreck from our minds.

[Another excursion was to the camel market where I drank fresh camel’s milk – and still wore a fanny pack.]

We procured a desert-camouflaged, four-wheel drive Bronco from the motor pool, loaded our gear, and headed out into the ancient Arabian Desert.  The excitement was high and we had the feeling that we were embarking on an exploration of uncharted territory.  Jubinski drove and Shaler rode shotgun as the navigator.  He had a map spread across his lap and he and Jubinski debated routes and locations while the other three of us joked and talked as we bumped along ever more rugged terrain.

We turned onto a sandy road and in the distance could be seen a long chain of cliffs.  The cliffs seemed utterly out of place lying in the midst of endless miles of flat desert.  As we approached, the cliffs continued to recede and it soon grew apparent that these cliffs were quite large.  The road finally turned to run parallel to the cliffs and we could see they were approximately three-hundred feet high and held flat plateaus across their tops. These flat tops grew to be several hundred feet across at some points.

We drove along this road, occasionally turning toward the cliffs as other roads appeared, as Shaler and Jubinski tried to find the location of the cave mouth.  It was slow going and nearly an hour elapsed before we found what we were looking for – and there was no mistaking that this was the cave mouth we sought.

My only experience at cave exploration was when I went as a child on a school fieldtrip to Rickwood Caverns in Warrior, Alabama.  Those caves were an extensive network of stalactite and stalagmite-ridden, limestone caverns.  They were irregular and filled with mineral formations and the omnipresent dripping of water.  The cave we were approaching was a gigantic mouth yawning from the depths of the desert.

The cave-mouth kept growing and growing until our Bronco was a mere period following a vast oval zero laid on its side.  I estimated the mouth of the cave to be larger than a football field and it continued at that size to descend at a 45-degree angle into the base of the cliff wall and down into the bowels of the desert.

We piled out of the truck and stood staring in awe at the vast behemoth that confronted our eyes.  The only other time I felt so insignificant before the size of Mother Nature’s handiwork was when I stood at the rim of the Grand Canyon stunned and silent.

[Ain Heet – A stunning view of the cave mouth.]

Several minutes elapsed before the spell was broken and we donned our gear to begin the trek down into the cave.  We whooped and talked in excitement as we set off.  The path was a boulder-littered and sandy rock field that we scrambled over and around with the thrill of adventure coursing through our blood.

We hiked like this for several minutes until we finally entered the vast shadow of the cave’s ceiling and the temperature immediately dropped to a more tolerable level as the baking desert sun was blocked; however, the air was still as dry as the caress of a mummy’s hand.  The cave ceiling loomed high above us and I felt as though we had entered the mouth of a giant, fossilized behemoth.

We picked our way slowly down the rock field for another 45-minutes as the light slowly dimmed and the cave mouth began to close.  Every so often I looked back at the cave-mouth and noted its size – first, as wide as my arm span; next, the size of a football (at which point we turned on our flashlights); and finally, no bigger than an egg.  And then we came upon a wall of boulders and our progress was abruptly halted.

[Abdul was a local man who told us the cave was avoided by the locals because it was associated with desert djin, or evil sprits. He warned us not to go in.]

[Mike Shaler is on the far right.]

“Well, Shaler?” Jubinski said.  “I thought there was supposed to be a pool down here.”

“There is,” Shaler said, scanning the boulders with his flashlight beam.  “There is supposed to be a crack in the rocks that we can climb through to get on the other side.”

“How do you know this, Shaler?” I exclaimed.

“I told you.  I have my sources.”

“Seriously, man,” Juarez began, but his comment was cut short by Clay.

“Hey, guys, over here!  I think I found it!”

Sure enough, Clay had found a slim crack between the boulders through which we all managed to worm our way through to the other side.  When I emerged on the other side the first thing I noticed was we had entered a totally new kind of darkness.  A darkness so profound it was palpable.  At one point someone made the suggestion to turn out all flashlights and I couldn’t even see my hand right before my eyes.

The wall of boulders ended as abruptly as it had emerged and the cave continued on in its previous manner.  I suspected the blockage was the result of a cave-in but kept this observation to myself.  We went on for another ten or fifteen minutes and then the humidity assaulted us.  It was like walking into a sauna and there was little doubt we were approaching some type of water source.

It wasn’t long before we reached the pool. Shaler, whatever his source of knowledge, had been right.  The pool was magnificent.  Shaler broke into an animated dance while yelling and laughing in triumph.

“I told you, boys!  Didn’t I tell you there was pool?  It’s gorgeous!”

The water was so clear it looked only a few feet deep.  Someone announced they were throwing a rock in and there followed a loud “bloosh” and my flashlight caught the location.  The water rippled and the rock was seen descending to the bottom.  It was apparent that the water was very deep.

[The only rock out of water is the large one in the foreground.]

The three guys from Life Support removed the lights they had brought and soon we had illumination well enough to see most of the pool.  It was the size of a small swimming pool and got deeper as the cave continued to descend. At the far side, the roof of the cave eventually met the water’s surface and it looked to me that this was the very bottom of the cave; however, there very well could have been more to the cave system.

We quickly stripped down to our swimming shorts and raced to enter the water.  Of course, Shaler was the first to plunge into the pool, but we all followed immediately after.  The water was exquisite.  It was cool, clear, deep, and big enough for us all to enjoy.  We soon discovered a boulder that jutted out of the water enough to provide a platform for jumping from and we all took turns climbing it and leaping in funny gyrations into the water.

With no one watching, Juarez slipped from the pool and shut off our lights.  We were thrown into pitch blackness and everyone began to yell with a tinge of fear in their voices until Juarez laughed at us and told us to hold on. Then, little green lights began to appear from where he sat as he broke the chemical sticks.  Each time he broke one he tossed it into the pool.  We tread water and watched each green stick glide through the air and plop in the pool.  Soon, they were floating all around us and the pool began to emanate an eerie, green glow – it is that same fluorescent green glow that haunts my dreams now and, when I see it in my waking state, I cringe from it like an arachnophobe from a spider.

Jubinski was the one who came up with the idea to tie the glow-sticks to rocks and submerge them.  This was done and soon the entire pool glowed a sickly, luminous green even more profound than when they were floating on the pool’s surface. I can’t remember how long we swam this way before Shaler announced he was going to try and dive as deep as he could in the back of the pool to see if it continued into another chamber.

Several times he disappeared and we waited for his return with news of his discoveries.  Shaler was a good swimmer, having grown up on the west coast beaches of California, and we were a little worried at how long he was gone beneath the dark waters each time he went under.  He went three times and returned with nothing to report but the fact that there was just rock as far as he could determine.  The fourth time he went down he returned quickly in a mad haste to get out of the pool spluttering and splashing all the while yelling, “I saw something!  Get out! I saw something down there!”

We all rushed to get out of the pool before questioning Shaler.

“What was it?”

“What did you see?”

“Was it a fish?”

“Are you sure you saw something?”

Shaler was visibly shaken and he tried to explain, but it came in fragments and I was sure he was trying to hide something.

“I don’t know…it was moving…but it wasn’t a fish. No, it definitely wasn’t a fish. It was moving…  C’mon, guys, let’s get the hell out of here!”  Shaler found the rescue beacons and turned on the lights so that the bright, white light drove the green glow away and our visibility was drastically improved.  We all retrieved our flashlights and searched the pool, but there was no sign of anything in the water moving.

We were all suddenly aware of the alien remoteness of our location and even though we all thought Shaler had just imagined seeing something, no one wanted to be the first to venture back into the pool.

Jubinski said, “I think you were seeing things, Shaler.”

Shaler commenced to drying off and merely said, “I saw something.  Don’t get back in.”

“You’re freaking me out, man,” Clay replied.

Jubinski broke the tension by saying, “Let’s go, guys. I want to explore the cliffs anyway.”

We all hastily dried off and dressed while keeping a wary eye on the pool.  We returned up the slope and hurried to squeeze through the crack in the boulders without saying very much.  At one point, before crawling through, I looked back one more time at the pool and a chill slithered down my spine as I beheld the glowing, green pool far below in the remote depths of the cave.

Once we emerged on the other side of the boulder obstruction, the darkness returned to a normal darkness and our moods were immediately altered for the better – all, that is, except for Shaler.  He remained silent and consumed in his own thoughts.  As we began the arduous trek back up the long tunnel Juarez came up to me and whispered, “Hey, man.  I bet Shaler is just messing with us.  I bet it’s just another one of his pranks.”

“Yeah, I bet you’re right.”  But I still didn’t believe it.  Something about the look in Shaler’s eyes when he came out of the water told me he was genuinely terrified.  He kept looking over his shoulder as if he were afraid that something was pursuing him.

By the time we struggled up the rugged path out of the cave we were so exhausted we didn’t have the energy to do any further exploring.  We all, except for Shaler who was unusually quiet, agreed that we could return to do further exploring at a later time.  And so, fatigued and hungry, we climbed inside the Bronco and headed back to Eskan Village.

Shaler never recovered from that trip into the cave. On the contrary, his condition spiraled into madness at an alarming rate.  In the days immediately following our excursion he seemed withdrawn and said very little.  I tried to engage him in conversations and frequently asked him if he was feeling all right. He made vague comments and refused to elaborate on anything.

Several nights later, I heard him thrashing and mumbling in his sleep.  I went to check on him and he awoke with a violent start.  Whatever nightmare had haunted him it must have been a very vivid one because he was very shaken.

[We supported aerial refuelers (KC-135’s) and had many opportunities to ride along with missions over Iraq.]

About a week later, I awoke in the middle of the night after hearing a noise.  When I rose to investigate what had caused the noise I found Shaler’s bed empty. Assuming he had risen because he couldn’t sleep and had probably gone for a walk, I returned to bed.  He was back the next morning and I didn’t think much more about the episode.

Several nights later, I heard Shaler leaving again and this time I watched him through the window and saw he was carrying a flashlight and a large water bottle.  Evidently, he wasn’t going out just to get fresh air, but was headed somewhere in particular.  It crossed my mind that it might be the cave, but I just couldn’t bring myself to accept this because of how much the episode in the cave had scared him.  I was confused and decided to try and follow him.

He kept to the shadows as he wound his way through Eskan Village.  I stayed back and made sure I wasn’t seen.  We finally arrived at the tent that was used as the motor pool.  But Shaler didn’t enter the tent.  Instead, he pulled a set of keys from his pocket and got into one of the Broncos.  I remained hidden as I watched him drive off.  I couldn’t believe that he would go back to the cave.  That’s where he had to be going, but why?  And especially by himself!  The thought of it made me shudder.

I returned to my villa and tried to sleep, but it was useless.  I lay awake wondering just what Shaler was up to.  It just didn’t make any sense.  Why would a person who was so scared return alone to such a dark and desolate place? Maybe he wasn’t even going to the cave. Or maybe he was meeting someone else at the cave and going in with them.  Maybe Juarez was right in his assessment that Shaler was just playing a joke on us.  Perhaps Shaler was returning there to build on his joke.  It just didn’t fit, though.  Shaler’s nightmares and the way his behavior had changed were all wrong. Unless his practical joke was far more elaborate than I expected.

I decided to attempt to follow Shaler all the way into the cave if he made another trip.  I remained awake until Shaler returned several hours later.  I couldn’t stand not knowing what he was up to and I confronted him when he entered our villa.

“Where have you been, Shaler?”

“Garrett, My God!  You scared the crap out of me.  I couldn’t sleep and -”

“Don’t lie, Shaler.  I know you’ve been to the cave.”

“What are you talking about?” He said trying to feign that my insinuation was hurtful.

“I followed you to the motor pool.  I know you went to the cave,” I lied trying to make him confess.

Suddenly, he grabbed my shirt and pulled me close saying, “What did you see?  Did you go into the cave?  Did you see them?”

His eyes were wild and his behavior was scaring me, but I pushed him back and said, “See who?  No, I didn’t go in the cave.”

Then, Shaler’s face changed.  I know no other way to describe it other than to say that a transformation spread across his face.  “I saw them in the pool, Garrett.  They were calling me to join them.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” I said horrified.

“I know you think I’m mad.  What else would you think?  But, I tell you it’s true.  That day we all went to the cave, I saw them in the dark depths of the pool. I don’t know who or what they are but they came to me in my nightmares.  They showed me what eternity looks like, Garrett.  I’ve been down there for hours just gazing into the pool; watching them.”

I was stunned.  I tried to make some sort of reply to his gibberish, but could think of absolutely nothing to say.  He watched me with that same wild look on his face and then it completely drained out of his face and he began to chuckle.

“I’m just kidding, Garrett,” he said trying to play it off.  “I was just messing with you, dude.  I did go down there to the cave, but I took some other guys down there to swim.  You know, like a tour guide.”

“What?” I said bewildered.  In my sleep-starved state I didn’t know whether he was kidding or serious or just plain lying.

“Yeah, there were these Army guys who wanted to go down there and the only time they could go was at nighttime.  I mean, it is a pitch-black cave after all, right?”

I was so tired that I didn’t bother to try and make any sense out of what Shaler had said nor his erratic behavior.  I went to bed and fell into a deep sleep. The next day I didn’t see Shaler at all. I went to work at the clinic and he went with one of our Flight Surgeons on a flight.  The flight they went on lasted well into the night and I was so exhausted after work, I went to bed early.

I awoke in the middle of the night to the sounds of Shaler’s nightmare fits.  I went to his doorway and listened to him.  He was mumbling and thrashing about in the bed and I stood and listened for several moments.  I could only make out a word here and there but I gathered he was dreaming of the pool and was telling someone that he was coming to meet them.  I stood there horrified as chills spread through my body. What madness was afflicting him? I gathered my nerves and decided to wake him.

I entered his room and beheld him in the throws of his nightmare ranting and writhing.  I cautiously touched his leg and called his name, “Shaler!”

He awoke with a start and stared wide-eyed into empty space before his eyes focused on me.  Then he startled me by grabbing my wrists.

“Garrett, my God!  I’ve seen them again.  I must go back to the cave.”

“It was only a nightmare, Shaler.  You were just dreaming.”  He merely brushed off what I said and rose from the bed and began searching around for his clothes.

“They’ve shown me eternity.  You can’t imagine the mysteries they’ve revealed to me.”

“Snap out of it!  You’re talking crazy.”

“Am I?  Have youseen them, Garrett?”  He continued to dress and I grabbed his arm. He jerked violently away and then shoved me.  Then a horrible look leapt into his eyes and he growled, “Get your filthy hands off of me.”

I was stunned.  This wasn’t the Shaler I knew.  He was mad.  “What the hell is your problem?” I countered.

I tried to reason with him but we just argued. He dressed and I followed him out of the villa.  It was in the street out front that I tried to grab him again.  This time, however, he wheeled on me and landed a hard punch right on my chin that knocked me out cold.

I awoke still lying on the pavement of the street.  Shaler was nowhere to be seen.  I pushed myself up and rubbed my chin trying to gather my wits.  The cave; Shaler had gone to the cave.  I had to go after him.

I rose to my feet and thought through how I should proceed.  I didn’t have a vehicle and I really couldn’t remember the route to the cave even if I did have one.  The day we went Jubinski had driven.  I decided to go to the Life Support villa and wake Jubinski.

I checked my watch and it was after 1 o’clock in the morning.  Eskan Village was dead silent.  When I arrived at Jubinski’s villa, I could tell that no one was awake.  I didn’t care, though.  I pounded on the door until Clay finally opened the door rubbing his eyes.  I explained to him I needed to talk to Jubinski and he let me in then went back to bed.  I woke Jubinski and pleaded my case to him.  He groggily listened to my story and saw I was obviously distressed by Shaler’s bizarre behavior.  Finally, he consented to go with me to the cave.

Once he was committed to the journey we had to acquire a vehicle.  We discussed sneaking a truck from the motor pool but this seemed a bit risky.

“What about an ambulance?” He said.

“What do you mean?”

“The clinic is on 24-hour shifts so let’s get an ambulance.”

“I can’t just go get one.”

“No, but you know the people working there. Talk them into letting you take one.”

It was worth a shot.  We headed over to the clinic and I talked to the two technicians on duty.  After about ten minutes of haggling and bribing they let us take the spare ambulance and agreed that if anything came up they would cover for us.

As we drove through the hot Arabian night I told him the entire tale of what had been going on with Shaler.  He agreed that it sounded like Shaler had lost his mind. We discussed several possibilities and I finally told him about the episode with the bus wreck.  When I told Jubinski about the ambulance run we had made the day before we went on our cave expedition he agreed that was probably the catalyst for Shaler’s mental malady.

When we finally arrived at the cave, it was disconcerting to see the desert-camouflaged Bronco sitting there empty, dwarfed by the ominous cave-mouth.  As we made the long journey into the depths of the cave, I experienced a growing sense of dread.  It was comforting to have Jubinski as a companion and I tried to drive out of my mind the hideous thought of making the descent alone.

We made it to the wall of boulders and located the crack.  I volunteered to go through first.  My heart was thundering in my chest as I squirmed through the narrow opening.  I didn’t know what to expect or why I had such a profound sense of dread.  I felt as if I were entering a vast, ancient sepulcher.  I emerged on the other side and played my flashlight beam over the immediate area.  Nothing but rock and silent space met my eyes.  I waited nervously while Jubinski wormed his way through the crack.  When he emerged beside me I felt a bit better, but there was still an oppressive aura of unnatural remoteness that pervaded the cave.  I felt as if we were aliens intruding into a forbidden crypt.

I wondered what Shaler was doing.  Was he completely out of his mind?  Would we find him swimming?  What if we found him raving mad?  Or even worse, what if we found him dead?

We trudged on and suddenly Jubinski grabbed my shoulder pulling me to a halt.

“Turn off your light,” he whispered.

“Are you crazy?” I retorted.

“Shhhh,” he hissed snapping his light off.  I reluctantly complied and we were suddenly plunged into utter blackness.  After a couple of seconds the sickly green glow of the pool emerged from the darkness.

“Look, it’s the pool glowing,” I heard myself whispering.

“Impossible.  Those glow-sticks would’ve burnt out days ago.”

“Maybe Shaler brought more.”

“Maybe,” Jubinski said in disbelief.  Then Jubinski shouted, “Shaler!” and I jerked in a spasmodic wave of fear shot through my body.

“Jesus Christ, Jubinski!  You scared the shit out of me,” I said with a mix of anger and fear.

“Sorry,” he said and turned his flashlight back on. He called several more times as we continued picking our way down toward the pool but his cries just echoed through the cavern with no reply coming back in return.

Finally, we made it to the pool.  There was no sign of Shaler anywhere.  The pool’s weird, green glow was simply eerie.  We apprehensively scanned the water of the pool fearing what we might find there.  The water was as still as glass, though.

“If he were swimming, the water wouldn’t be this calm,” Jubinski offered.

“Do you think -”  But my question was cut off by a sudden, primal scream.  I fell backwards in stark terror and whipped my light in the direction of the scream.  There, framed by the light, stood Shaler with a flashlight in his hand and the inert form of Jubinski lying beside him.  Shaler had attacked Jubinski.  I couldn’t tell if Jubinski were alive or dead.  Shaler had a maniacal stare on his face and was breathing heavily.

“Garrett, thank God you came.  It’s all clear to me now.  I know what I must do.”

I was terrified.  I tried to speak, but the words stuck in my throat.  I began to stumble backwards.

“It’s not just me they want,” he said icily. “They want you too.”

He lunged at me then.  I recoiled and tried to put distance between us but the rocks were too cumbersome to navigate in the dark.  He swung at me with the flashlight and I was able to duck the blow.  I got a punch off at his stomach and felt my fist bury into his abdomen.  He let out a woosh of air but managed to wrap an arm around my neck.  I tried to pull free but his arm was locked around my head. I didn’t think; I just reacted.  I tried to push into him and drive him to the ground but instead, he fell backwards into the pool.  He still had me in a headlock as we splashed into the cool, green water.  I pried at his arm and struggled to break free but it was no use.  I was running out of air and panicking.  Just then I felt a strong sense of being pulled deeper into the water.  Then I felt my head pop free from his hold and I pushed away from Shaler.  I clawed at the water in an effort to find the surface; to find the air I so desperately needed.  I managed to open my eyes and I saw Shaler being pulled down by a throng of shapes.  Their hands were wrapped about his body and I could see Shaler’s face calm and serene as he smiled back at me.  Just before I broke the surface of the water I saw them disappear into the green-tinted darkness and one of the figures looked at me!  It was the most hideous thing I’ve ever beheld in my life.  I’ve tried to convince myself that it was just an illusion; just a trick of the mind caused by the lack of oxygen or my rattled nerves.  But sometimes, when I let my guard down, the realness of it overtakes me.  Deep inside I know the truth.  I know what I saw.  It was the face of the dead Arab from the bus wreck.

I clambered from the pool in an outrageous panic. Jubinski wasn’t dead, thank God. I don’t know what I would’ve done if he were.  I probably would have lost it.  I shook him until he came to and then I told him that Shaler was gone.  I told him that he had dove in the pool and never come up. I couldn’t tell him what I really saw. He wouldn’t have believed me anyway.

We made our way back out in a complete daze. When we got back to Eskan Village we sought out our commander and told him the entire story.  Of course, I left out the part about me seeing the things in the pool.

They sent a team back into the cave to try and find the body of Michael Shaler but he was never found.  After that it was forbidden for any serviceman to go to the cave.

Before I left Saudi Arabia I managed to talk to one of the men who went into the cave to search for Shaler.  I just wanted to know one thing.

“When you went into the cave did you see anything unusual in the pool?”

“There was nothing in the pool,” he said thinking about it.  “But the pool did give off this really creepy green glow.”

Gather all your sourcebooks, your smart phone, laptop, printer, a glue stick, scissors, and the irresistible graph paper notebook! This is how I believe the creators intend for GMs to develop adventure seeds sprinkled throughout the sourcebooks.

Here’s the one’s I have:

This is fairly self-explanatory within the the text of the notebook. This gives you a thorough idea of how to prep for a campaign utilizing sourcebooks and online images! in the case of this notebook, I want to teach the game to newbies, but I want to slowly introduce more advanced play as we go.

Here are several illustrations I created for The Other Side of Despair. Specifically for the story “The Land of Nod”.

 

 

 

I ran the Doomvault for the boys. It was a blast using ICRPG with the tweaks I discussed from Savage Worlds – Bennies and Action Deck Initiative. In the lower half of the picture above I have my notes ready for the Doomvault. We wound up using all of this space to build our story embellishments, as I’ll show in detail below.

Before we started, I went to my FNG store and purchased the giant d20 to indicate the current Target Number. I also decided to just replace the large, steampunk Hero Tokens with blue chips. So, for our game, we started with 3 Bennies (red chips used to either roll with Advantage or re-roll after rolling an Attempt) and 2 Hero Tokens (blue chips used to add Ultimate Effort to your Effort roll). I also found it easy to use 3 colors of those little counters that FFG makes (upper part of picture). Mainly used to count HP, Health, and Hearts. Blue = 1 HP, Green = 5 HP, Red = 10 HP or 1 Heart. I should also mention that the giant d6’s and d4’s (in the guise of a d12) in the picture are what we used to count Spell Burn and Battle Fury (page 80 of the Core 2e book).

Here’s the story board approach we used. The boys love this because I let them build it. First, 3 index cards are drawn from the pile (I’m using the 1st and 2nd releases because that’s plenty of Fantasy genre goodness). They can arrange them in any order they want to set up the Location, Goal, and Obstacle (see pg. 72 Core 2e). We had a door as our Goal, so we had to hide a card under which represented what was behind the door. Even though the Doomvault begins in Norburg, we inserted this into the adventure between Hag Roost and the end of The Long Pattern where the Invincibles are guarding the descent to Mirror Lake.

We found a secret passage (in the ceiling of The Pattern) that led us on a side quest. After laying out the 3 index cards and determining the LG&O, I let the boys roll the Story Cubes to help create links between the 3 cards. In the top one they decided that the first card was a map they found in the ceiling. The map contained a magic locket in the shape of a Hieroglyph. The boys don’t know about the next adventure called Eyes of Sett. I told them that we could create a cool magic property that will come in handy on their next adventure. This could be a fun way to start that adventure. The map showed a way to descend to a different cavern.

We battled some Cave Ropers to get to the door. This door could only be opened at a certain time of the day. I made them accomplish a 4 heart study of the door that needed to be finished before a 4-round counter went down. They managed to open the door at the right time and fought 2 Giant Tentacles to earn everyone a Loot Card! The group went back and we managed to sneak past the Invincibles using Kang’s magic and Moonglum’s sneakiness. To cross Mirror Lake, we did another card draw as above. I won’t recount everything, but at one point Bran was inside of a Cave Roper being eaten and managed to kill it from within with his sword Hot Knife. This method of creating the story on the fly is fun and effective at generating collaborative game play.

I also wanted to mention some good products that I picked up on DriveThruRPG. The Game Master Worksheets are nice sheets to use if you want to create a one-shot all the way up to world building and campaign design. The Moldy Codex has a great Fantasy adventure called The Lost Tomb of the Skeleton King which I’ll likely run after Eyes of Sett. I sure hope Daniel continues production of the Moldy Codex.

Finally, this Goose IPA is legit! Stay thirsty, my friend!

 

This is a philosophical paper I wrote after much reading and pondering on the question of freewill.

A_Case_for_Free_Will_journal[1]

I have to say that I really love the intuitiveness and simplicity of ICRPG! These days I rarely get together with a regular group of adult gamers. More often, I’m playing RPGs with my boys who are just beginning to hit the age where I first started playing D&D.

I did, however, start them off playing Savage Worlds. I remember when I first tried to introduce them to 5e via “The Lost Mine of Phandelver”, my son missed one of his first rolls and exclaimed, “I want to spend a Benny!” Ooooo! Sorry, son, there aren’t any Bennies in 5e . . . until now.

I ran my first session of ICRPG using Hankerin’s rules for Hero Tokens and the continuous clockwise rotation, but I sure did miss SW’s Initiative and Benny system. We ran that game with no prep. We just used Hankerin’s art and some Rory’s Story Cubes to just create a cool story.

I decided to try out ICRPG using a D&D module and incorporating some SW-inspired home brew rules.

Benny Rules and Cards for Initiative

To the left of the pencil I have some large, steampunk tokens that I’m using for my Hero Tokens. Each player gets one and can use it for Maximum Effort. Essentially, this token allows a player to roll their d12 with either their weapon or magic damage so there is no reason to have any special d12s at the table – they use their d12s in their dice pool.

The Benny, however, is used to either re-roll a bad d20 roll OR it can be cashed in prior to rolling to gain Advantage on the next roll. Sometimes you roll and then just wish you could roll again and sometimes you want to cash in the Benny before the roll so that you can roll 2d20 (Advantage). Because this adds another d20 to the roll, I use the little red chips to the right of the pencil for my Bennies and have a pile of d20s on hand to toss at players when they choose to cash in a Benny.

I like this system since it allows players to use a Hero Token for Effort and Bennies for Attempts.

I did like Hankerin’s continuous initiative, but I really like the deck of cards method that SW uses. I believe it adds more suspense and drama to initiative, plus, whenever a Joker comes up, everyone gets a Benny and everyone’s attempt for the round is easy! Besides, there are times in the game (quite a bit, actually) when it’s not really anyone’s turn because the group is discussing what their next action or direction should be.

I chose to use the adventure called “Fane of the Sun Swallower” from the D&D Next book entitled “Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle”. This is a great little dungeon with some cool magic items. The first thing I did was go through and make my own little set of Loot cards that match all the magic items.

Just find all the entries for Treasure, and make your own cards. I used half of an index card and drew little pictures. My boys seem to love the tactile nature of getting a card rather than writing down the item on their character sheet.

I made a little Loot bag so I could create more as the need arises.

Besides my recent acquisition of both ICRPG books, I also recently got the Tal’Dorei campaign book and “Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes”.

I noticed in both Ghosts of Dragonspear and Mordenkainen’s the following pictures that all harken back to the original cover of the Player’s Handbook.

So, I created an ICRPG adventure that has the heroes going to retrieve the left eye of the statue. It is called “The Eidolon of Moloch”.

Hope you enjoy it!

This entry fueled by new favorite beer: Moose Drool

My boys and I decided to try our first session of ICRPG using characters based on the archetypes in the core book and just making up the story as we go along. First, let’s check out all the characters we created!

Kaden opted for the Scout and made his character Link from Zelda. Kaden is also using my oldest set of dice there – circa 1980’s.

Silas chose to make Peter Pan, the Mage version. I acquired the fin boots, but we altered them to winged boots and I traded them to Pete so he could fly. I mean, he is Peter Pan, after all.

Ryland chose a Guardian – Kili from the Hobbit, but not the movie depiction. His Kili is red headed and wields a massive battle hammer! Yeah!

I made a Wildling named Pullo. He’s based on the character in the HBO Rome series, but is Celtic rather than Roman – just a big lug. The cool thing about this game is that the loot I acquired has turned him into a healer type. He’s like a huge barbarian with magic rune stones.

Other characters we made, but aren’t using for Session 1 are Rakhir the Red Archer, Bran MacMorn, Kang, Dirk Moonglum, and The Green Knight.

We decided to use Loot Cards and Rory’s Story Cubes along with the actual Index Cards from the ICRPG game.

When I say, we made up the adventure on the fly, I mean we went into the game with absolutely no starting point and just started taking turns going around the table drawing cards and rolling dice and together we created a plot line.

We just arranged things the way we felt the story needed to logically flow and then went back and began going through the sequence of events, but in more detail. My kids absolutely loved this “theater of the mind” approach and they actually contributed quite a bit of cool detail to the story as we played through two battles and several trapped rooms.

We began in the midst of a dungeon where Pullo had just pulled a lever releasing a cloud of poison. We grabbed some magic items from the room revealed and battled some skeletons as we escaped the poison room. having narrowly escaped the horde of skeletons and the poison gas, we were suddenly in a long corridor filling with water. To escape we had to climb a gore and nail-adorned tower out of the level that was flooding. Pullo fell and suffered falling damage but made it out. The crew emerged in the midst of a troll ritual and had to stop the ritual from culminating in the summoning of some foul beast. Fortunately, we didn’t get too beat up and took out the trolls before the timer ran out! We drew loot cards for our victory and stopped just shy of halfway through our story line. That was about a good hour of play that left the kids eager to see what happens next!

This game is the best! I love ICRPG and can’t wait to play again with the boys. The thing I loved the best was the feel of the game. It felt like old-school D&D, but much simpler and streamlined. It’s also similar enough to 5e to feel familiar. I seriously could randomly choose almost any module or adventure and just run through it using the ICRPG with almost no work at all. Definitely my new fave for a universal RPG!

If you were to go and do a simple internet search for the phrase “artistic representations of Pi” (and I encourage you do so), you’d find a slew of amazing looking pieces that generally depict what looks like random noise. Sure, the noise may be presented elegantly, but the fact still remains, the digits of Pi, when plotted out, just represent an overall lack of pattern.

You, see, people tend to focus on the actual digits. Before I begin talking about an alternative approach, let’s talk about art in general. Upon the wall of my son’s pre-school classroom is a chart which reads: ELEMENTS OF ART. The elements include: Color, Value, Line, Texture, Shape, Form, and Space. This is a nice list that indicates the sort of elements that I tried to bring to the problem of representing Pi in what I believe are three very interesting ways.

There are a couple of other mathematical concepts that relate to art which I relied on heavily for this project. The first is Symmetry. By imposing symmetry onto Pi, it becomes less about the noise. This I did by folding Pi into a circle. Quite apropos, but it’s been done before.

The second thing was by studying which numbers do produce wonderful patterns in art. It turns out that this is done by creating what is called a Sequence. Arguably, the most famous sequence is the Fibonacci Sequence. This is created by using the real numbers and adding them together serially:

1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13 . . .

The Fibonacci Sequence is a marvel of the mathematical world as well as appears throughout the natural world in countless permutations.

Another famous sequence is the Primes. A number that can’t be divided by any number except itself and 1:

2,3,5,7, 11, 13, 17, 19 . . .

There is an entire library of sequences:

Sequences

What is missing is the sequence created by adding the digits of Pi serially. I’ve searched and searched for the sequence’s name and for any research into exploring its properties, but, apparently, I’m laying claim to it.

The sequence turns out to be:

3, 4, 8, 9, 14, 23, 25, 31, 36 . . .

One thing you’ll notice about such sequences is that they almost always grow as the sequence progresses. It is because of the relationship between the numbers, rather than just the numbers themselves, that make sequences a great tool for an artist and a mathematician to explore.

It should also be noted that I chose a 36 degree circle because of its divisibility and the fact that it limits most of the sequences I wanted to explore to a range of 6 to 11 numbers. A very manageable set that can be used for multiple purposes, as you’ll see. So, with the limit set to 36, the serialized Pi sequence we are going to explore by encoding into three schemas is once again:

3, 4, 8, 9, 14, 23, 25, 31, 36

These nine numbers will be turned into 3D Shapes, Colors, and Sounds.

To understand my approach, it helps to understand how to form a cardioid – a shape within a circle that resembles a heart.

We’ll be using a 36-degree circle, so it helps to understand how these 36 nodes will be counted. For these examples, we’ll always be using the bottom node as our Starting Point (the node in the South direction, or in the 6 o’clock position. Instead of counting the Starting Point as “1”, however, we consider it to be “0”.

Notice that when you count up one side of the circle that the lines grow longer until you reach the number “18”, which is directly opposite node “0”, and then the lines become shorter incrementally again as you count higher. In essence, the numbers 1-17 all have a corollary number 19-35 so that the distance from 0 to 1 is the same in length as 0 to 35. In the same way, 0 to 2 is the same as 0 to 34, etc.

With all this in mind, it will help to view the next two links and learn about the Cardioid.

Cardioid

Cardioid 2

In creating a Cardioid on a 36-degree circle, each step in the process creates just one instance of a particular number that is always of the formula n = n x 2. This pattern creates a mirrored spiral across the even numbers where the lines grow to node 18 and then shrink again as the numbers go higher.

But let us now consider the act of creating a line from every single node of the same number over and over. Take for example the number “9”. When the number “9” is fully mapped around the circle, a smaller circle appears. This circle of the number “9” is actually formed out of the half-way points of every single line.

But also notice that the number “9” corresponds to the number “27”. Before we move on to a method to differentiate such cases of corollary numbers, let’s take a look at what the number sequence of 3, 4, 8, 9, 14, 23, 25, 31, and 36 looks like when plotted in number circles within a 36-degree circle in pencil.

The pencil version looks pretty amazing, but presents a problem with higher numbers that might get confused with or even overlay lower numbers.

To see the issue clearer, let’s keep in mind that the goal is to create an actual 3D version of the circle using thread for the lines. When constructing a 3D version, the thread gets built from the base upwards. In other words, the thread goes on the loom in the reverse order of the numbers. What happens when higher numbers are covered over with thread as the lower numbers get added?

To see the problem clearer, let’s view several sequences in cross-sectional views.

Interestingly enough, from doing this, we see that the Pi Sequence is actually a great sequence to apply to the 36-degree circle. The Prime Sequence turns out to be a bad choice, at least with 36 degrees. The “odd” nature of Prime Sequence causes several numbers to coincide with their corollary, which would hide the higher number and/or artificially reinforce the lower numbers (e.g 5 & 31, 7 & 29, 13 & 23, 17 & 19).

This doesn’t happen with the Cardioid because the even numbers are only “counted” one instance whereas using our method, each number is “counted” 36 times to form the full circle.

An artistic method of differentiating the lower and higher corollaries is to map each number to a color. I chose to use the RBG color wheel because it is already mapped onto a circle. Plus, the values are precisely determined – even though I chose not to seek out thread colors of such exacting values.

By adding color values to the circle we can see quite easily the difference between a “yellow 6-valued circle” and a “magenta 30-valued circle”.

The end result is like looking through a rainbow of the digits of the Pi Sequence.

This next picture illustrates the rainbow color of the cross section which is formed.

Not wanting to stop there, I chose to apply the sequence to music.

The problem then becomes how to project a musical scale onto a 36-degree circle? It just so happens that 36 can be divided into 12 sets of 3 numbers. The Western musical scale also has 12 note values in an octave for the Chromatic Scale.

This process, unlike the previous two of mapping numbers and colors, cannot be reversed, though. Since numbers 1, 2, and 3, could all become the first note, there is no way to know the first note and from that extrapolate backwards whether that note is exactly 1, 2, or 3. But it is still a fun exercise to see how the Pi Sequence sounds when plotted onto the circle of notes.

For my version, I chose to start with the note A and build from A being the root note.

Note               Note Value      Original Number

A                      0                      1-3

A#/Bb              1                      4-6

B                      2                      7-9

C                      3                      10-12

C#/Db              4                      13-15

D                      5                      16-18

D#/Eb              6                      19-21

E                      7                      22-24

F                      8                      25-27

F#/Gb              9                      28-30

G                     10                    31-33

G#/Ab             11                    34-36

A (again 1 octave higher)

Our Pi Sequence (3, 4, 8, 9, 14, 23, 25, 31, 36) becomes:

A, A#, B, B, C#, E, F, G, G#

This creates 9 notes and I chose to write in the unorthodox time signature of 9/8 time. My method was to break down the notes into three groups of three notes each. I also wrote a return to Pi at the end that emphasized the numbers 3, 1, 4, 1, 5, and then 9 but using the 9-note sequence as a reprise. 314159 then plays over and over until fade out.

Plotted on a midi sequencer, it looks like this when played twice. I lowered the last 3 notes an octave.

Here is the final result.

The Sound of the Pi Sequence

Here are several pictures of the build.

We’re getting ready to start a BECMI/OSR campaign and so I decided to review the following BECMI/OSR products:

  • Rules Cyclopedia
  • Labyrinth Lords
  • Dark Dungeons
  • Blood & Treasure
  • Swords & Wizardry
  • Red & Blue Books with B/X Companion

What I discovered was that all roads point back to the Rules Cyclopedia. To me, it’s the best book that I use to look up all sorts of things. It’s not the be-all, end-all of sources, but it’s my go-to.

I have to admit that back in the 80’s when I was playing original BECMI/AD&D, our group jumped on the AD&D products immediately, and I never really played too much in the Mystara setting. It’s a shame because I now believe that Mystara is the best setting for playing the type of BECMI/OSR game we’re going to be playing.

Also, we’re going to be using Chapter 5 of the RC which means Weapon Proficiencies and General Skills will be used extensively. The Mystara section and Chapter 5 are two more reasons why the RC is the source of choice. The following document clarifies certain rules that will be used in the campaign:

Session Zero for Mystara Campaign Using Rules Cyclopedia and Labyrinth Lord

To me, the coolest part of what we’re going to be running is using a very specific set of character classes. My players can only choose from the following 16 classes. These classes come from James Spahn of Barrel Rider Games:

Archer

Assassin

Bandit

Barbarian

Berserker

Bounty Hunter

Explorer

Gladiator

Pirate

Rune Smith

Scoundrel

Swashbuckler

Sword Master

Undead Slayer

Wanderer

Wild Wizard

I took all of these classes and made a resource for the players to use.

Since we’ll be utilizing Weapon Proficiency and General Skills, I found a character sheet online that has an entire page dedicated to these mechanics. I’m not sure of its origin, but it’s perfect for our campaign.

D&D Character Record Sheet (Knotwork)

Finally, the one area of adventure that I just couldn’t find a system that I truly loved was the Hex Crawl. I’m sure there are numerous systems that are just fine, but I wanted to make travel and encounters have a simple system and use the groups’ skills.

I found the perfect set of encounter tables online. They were created by Jed McClure and he calls them Wilderness Hexplore. The system was designed for a map with absolutely no idea what lies beyond the home hex you start on. Since we’ll be in the Mystara campaign world, I modified his method, but I still think his tables are pretty robust.

Jed McClure_Wilderness_Hexplore_revised

My system utilizes his tables, but it requires the party of adventurers to be more involved in taking on certain roles as the group travels. Here is the revised system that utilizes skills from the General Skills list in the RC.

Overland Travel Rules for BECMI & OSR